Written in 1899, Joseph Conrad’s most well-known work, Heart of Darkness, tells the tale of Charles Marlow, an ivory transporter, and his colonial-era journey up the River Congo. Marlow becomes increasingly obsessed with the enigmatic Kurtz, the tyrannical ‘chief’ of a station up-river who has become a ‘god-like’ figure to the people he brutalizes.
In more recent years, Conrad’s story has been accused – rightly or wrongly – of racism. For me, however, the most famous line of the novella, immortalised too in Francis Ford Copolla’s Vietnam-era movie Apocalypse Now, comes as Kurtz is dying: “The horror, the horror.” Kurtz’s final words are ambiguous: the meaning is deliberately nebulous, leaving us to interpret for ourselves. My reading, however, has always been clear: that, like Conrad’s depiction of Western ‘civilisation’, there is a dark side to all of us. We must learn to stare this in the face before it is too late.
I am very aware that this is a very dramatic opening to a blog post on education and graded lesson observation! Please hear me out. Recently, I have read a spate of fantastic posts from the big-hitters of the blogosphere – David Didau, John Tomsett and Joe Kirby to name but three – all questioning the purpose of graded lesson observation and providing us with alternative options. It was further encouraging to read this week in David’s blog that (a) Ofsted are listening to educational bloggers and (b) that Ofsted have now ruled that individual lessons will not be graded during school inspections. The momentum is gaining weight.
This is all promising, but how does it relate to Conrad and Heart of Darkness? Well, my big concern with graded lesson observations is the way that they, and the associated culture, unwittingly encourage us to hide our own ‘horrors’. If we know we are to be graded, if we know that this grade might be directly linked to performance related pay, then, for many of us, lesson observation becomes about covering up our weaknesses – our ‘hearts of darkness’ you might say. (Sorry if that sounds a little grandiose!).
Over the last few years, I will admit, I have sought to achieve ‘outstanding’ in my lesson observations. On good days I have been graded such. Yet has there been a cost to this? Have I really worked out how to become a great teacher or have I just learnt to successfully cover over the cracks? Could, impossibly, my earnest attempts at ‘outstanding’ have hindered rather than helped my students? In the spirit of veracity, here are a few of the obfuscating strategies many of us employ in an attempt to hide our weaknesses:
- Ensure that we are teaching something ‘easy’ and covering up the fact that we know the class are already quite good at this.
- Warning the class that someone from SLT is coming in to watch them before the lesson and expects to see PERFECT behaviour.
- Offering future ‘reward’ lessons for a particularly good lesson.
- Changing schemes of work around to incorporate an ‘Ofsted’-style lesson, even if this is not what the class need. (This is the worst crime as students are losing out directly.)
- Putting all other marking and planning to one side to micro-plan a lesson over about three days.
And the list goes on… You could legitimately argue that even without graded observations, the sly amongst us might still employ such tactics. It is natural, and good for professional development, to spend longer on planning a lesson than we normally would. However, I do believe that the removal of grades would dramatically alleviate the problem. Most importantly, I think schools need to grow cultures in which we are not afraid to discuss openly our weaknesses and foibles. I would like to be comfortable enough to invite my colleagues to see me teaching my most challenging class, who are learning the material I find most challenging to teach. Then, perhaps, the feedback would be more useful.
Once again, in the interests of honesty, here are what I perceive to be my main weaknesses:
- Poorly planned and executed explanations. Too often I have to rely on heavily-scaffolded tasks to make up for the paucity of my verbal offerings.
- Questioning students too much – especially when I have not given them adequate knowledge to work on.
- Moving around the classroom too much and too nervously.
- Offering feedback too quickly.
- Being unsure when and how to give praise – see my previous blog post.
This is the stuff I try to cover up in observations; I would, ideally, like more feedback on this. (I am going to finally work up the courage to video myself at some point this year as I know this will help me to address some of the concerns.)
There are a couple questions – addressed well in the posts I mentioned at the start – that schools do need to answer before moving away from graded lesson observations:
1) How would under-performing teachers be identified and monitored in the absence of grades?
2) What alternative methods would schools use to encourage and motivate teachers to aim for the best?
Leaders like Shaun Allison are drawing attention to the ‘bright spots’. Shaun is blogging about the great stuff he sees in lessons – here and here for instance. This is inspiring leadership as it imbues a sense of positivity – if the good things are highlighted they surely will grow.
So here is another voice – a lesser one I’m sure – to add a tiny bit more strength to the argument that graded lesson observations can be damaging. The more voices the better. Now that Ofsted are not doing it, surely schools must follow suit? My vision of an education utopia is one where our ‘bright spots’ are celebrated, and one where, finally, we can also feel confident and secure in sharing – and ultimately defeating – our ‘hearts of darkness’.